Art Credit: Rana Tahir; photo of altar.
On This Day Last Year, I Tried to Kill Myself
Note: I’ve been going back and forth on whether I’d ever post this since I started working on it back in April. Now that it is the day, August 25th, I’ve decided to go ahead and do it quietly. No sharing on social media etc. But I decided it’s here for anyone who might need it, even if that’s only one person somewhere out there.
When I think about it now, I can’t believe it happened. I still can’t believe it even though I’m sitting at my desk where it happened, even though I still have the suicide note I wrote, even though I haven’t really stopped thinking about suicide since then.
This was not my first suicide attempt, nor was it the first time I had ever thought about suicide; it was the scariest attempt in a long time. At first, like with all of my other attempts, I found myself immediately trying to distance from the seriousness of it.
There are only a couple of people who know the full story, and I’m not going to share it here, but the people who do know can attest to the fact that when I did share the story with them, I shared it like it was funny. In fact I reframed it that way almost immediately after the attempt. That’s partly because, in a macabre/comedy of errors way, the situation was funny to me (my sense of humor can get pretty dark); it’s partly because I have always used humor as a shield (we can thank childhood trauma for that); but mostly, it was because I couldn’t take myself seriously.
The truth is, I’m alive by accident.
And even though I knew that, I still couldn’t take the attempt seriously, I couldn’t take myself seriously. I asked myself, why couldn’t I take myself seriously? And the answer came:
Well, if I really meant to kill myself, wouldn’t I be dead already?
Forget the fact that this was probably the closest call I’ve ever had; forget the fact that had things worked out, I would not be here to think about it or anything at all; forget the fact that I knew that I was absolutely intent on dying. That dismissive voice came from deep inside me.
It was the same voice that came out when a girl in high school slit her wrist and everyone started making fun of her when she came to school with a small bandage wrapped around her wrist hiding a cut that was “too small” and that a cut “across the bridge is for attention, down the river for the real deal”; it was the same voice that came out when another girl at my second high school was hospitalized for a suicide attempt and people said she was just “crying for attention” from her ex-boyfriend. Despite having my own struggles with suicidal thoughts, I and my peers perpetuated this one belief: if you really want to die, you will; anything else is fake, anything else is an insult to people with “real problems.”
I wanted to die. I believed my family would be better off with me dead. I felt trapped by my life. I believed, and still believe sometimes, that I am a horrible human being and should be dead. For a long time what kept me alive was guilt and fear: guilt over leaving my family, my siblings especially; fear over going to hell because “suicide is a sin.” Needless to say, those are not great reasons to live.
I had a few attempts in middle and high school, some while I was still living in Kuwait, another the summer I moved abroad, another while I was a senior at my fancy boarding high school. No one knows about these attempts. I had the ability to get so close, and then move on the next day like nothing happened. This was especially true at my boarding school where I felt I was surrounded by people with “real problems” and so I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I was in pain, but I couldn’t ask for help. I didn’t know what kind of help I needed. I don’t have real problems to fix. I’m fine, I’m just being stupid.
I graduated high school and went to college. The guilt and pain followed me of course; how can you hide from your own mind?
I was good at brushing past things. I would let things build up till I reached a breaking point: that could mean lashing out at people, that could mean lashing out at myself, that could (and mostly did) mean doing both.
As bad as my behavior could get, I hit a real turning point in college. It felt like suddenly I couldn’t just “move on” like I normally would. While I was certainly not always my best self to many people, the person who bore the brunt of that was my boyfriend. I revealed more to him than I had anyone in my life, with that came fear and with fear came trust issues. I would want to break up with him and then, many times at the last minute, decide not to go through with it.
In the fall term of my Junior year, because of a lot of stressors including an assault my sophomore year on an Amtrak over Spring Break, I was close to hitting bottom again. I needed help but I wasn’t sure what help I specifically needed, so I found myself facing a Google search again.
My laptop was on the fritz so I was in the computer lab, my heart pounding hoping no one would see what I was typing. I filled in my Google search and started clicking through links and reading. So much of it was the same information that made me decline to look for further help in the past.
In the past I had searched resources for help dealing with suicidal thoughts and attempts. The resources I found were always terrible and never seemed to speak to my experience. They sounded like the same judgmental voices I already had in my own head. I didn’t need people to tell me suicide “is selfish” or “is a sin” or “is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Let me tell you that I still to this day hate seeing or hearing the phrase “it gets better” because for me it didn’t seem like things were just going to “get better.” That phrase just told me to wait and let things work themselves out, which, in my experience, was bullshit.
That day in the computer lab I found something different. I don’t know what I specifically typed in to get a different result this time, but I stumbled across this website called Metanoia.
In big red letters in the middle of the page it said, “Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.”
Let me repeat that:
Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.
Suddenly, it all seemed so simple. Well, not entirely, but it was certainly a more realistic answer than the “it gets better” drivel I was used to reading. I felt seen, and I felt like I had a recourse besides clinging to guilt or fear.
Another page listed suggestions for how to talk to someone who is suicidal. In a split decision I have never regretted since, I sent the links to my boyfriend in an email saying “first read these and then we need to talk.” Funny enough, as I left the computer lab I bumped into him and I let him know about the email and not to be worried. For once, I wasn’t worried about sharing my secret.
I’ve had suicidal thoughts since I was a toddler; this was the result of intense childhood physical and emotional abuse. To other people, they might see this as a “real problem” but to me, this was just life. Other people have it worse.
I had assumed abuse was normal. I had assumed all of my peers dealt with this; I knew that some close friends had this same problem, I had seen my aunts and uncles punish my cousins in similar ways, so it was easy to assume. The first time I realized this was not normal was in the 7th grade. I had brought in an article in the Kuwait Times about the legislators considering to strengthen child abuse laws to class. I said something along the lines of it’s good that the legislators are doing this. A boy in class looked at me and asked, point blank, “does your dad beat you?” I quickly answered, “no.” But inside I was thinking, doesn’t your dad beat you?
I want to say here that I love my parents and I am on good terms with them. I worry about them possibly seeing this. The last thing I want to do is hurt or embarrass them. This is not about them or what happened and why, I’ve made my peace with parts of it and am working on making peace with other parts. I love my family.
The abuse was a normal part of my world. We like to say children are resilient, and they are, but they become resilient by adopting coping mechanisms to survive the day to day and not all of those mechanisms are healthy.
One of my mechanisms was to internalize all the blame: my parents abuse me because I’m bad, if I can be good then the abuse will stop. It resulted in low self-esteem, perfectionism, trust issues, and control issues. Of course the abuse didn’t stop, so, to my child brain, that meant I’m really bad and there is no fixing me no matter what I do. There’s only one way out.
As a child, I always believed no one would help me if I asked for help. Often that was because no one did help me. I felt lonely and forgettable through most of my life. In elementary, a time when I would often get beat right before being dropped off to school, I lashed out at a boy who accidentally hit me with a soccer ball during recess. It was the last straw on that day of torture. The teacher on duty heard my threat and sent me to a time out. I can still remember vividly sitting on the wooden chair bawling my eyes out until I was hyperventilating while that teacher watched and said nothing. This is just one instance in which I learned that help would never come.
There were times I had tried, discreetly to seek help because I was so desperate. After one particular instance of abuse that was particularly terrifying in high school, I told a trusted teacher about what happened. I was crying in the bathroom before school started and told her what happened that morning in the car on the way to school. By then though I learned that her hands were tied. Abuse in Kuwait was not taken seriously, and considering that I’ve seen a lot of it when I go back to visit, I’d venture to say it still isn’t. If a teacher reported a case of abuse, nothing would happen except perhaps the teacher would get in trouble (this was especially dependent how prominent the family was). We’re still in touch now, and sometimes I wonder if I should ask her if she remembers that day.
When I left to my boarding school my Junior year of high school I thought the safety of distance would make getting help easier. Nothing I did or said would likely get back to my parents, I felt a taste of freedom.
First I tried sharing my experience of abuse with my friends. These were friends with “real problems” and I thought they would be understanding. What I received was judgment. Once a boy said, “your father is a monster.” While I know he meant well, that wasn’t helpful to me. All it did was compound my guilt; familial piety had a strong hold of me back then. I learned I couldn’t share my truth with my friends without somehow hurting my family. If this is how people reacted when I shared my experiences, what would happen if I ever shared them in a more public space? I felt isolated again.
My boarding school was an arts school and I was admitted as a creative writer. I came in thinking I would become a novelist and write fiction forever. I despised poetry until I took an introduction to poetry class with a visiting writer for the semester. She was very supportive and I found through poetry I could write about things I hadn’t written about before. My first poems were mostly prose poems, I still considered myself a fiction writer; but with poetry I could write out the memories but keep them obscured, allow readers to feel without knowing particulars. I owe a lot to her and that class. I’m naming her because I love her and have mentioned her before in my Yale Radio interview: thank you Teresa Scollon.
As I began to process my childhood through my writing, I started to feel braver. The breakthrough came with a certain collection of poems I still credit to this day with making me a poet. That book was Letters to Yesenin by Jim Harrison. Those of you who have been following this blog back in the early days may remember my mentioning this book in the tribute I wrote about Harrison when he passed in 2016.
In that book, Harrison writes poems to the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin. Yesenin had committed suicide at the height of his fame, writing his last poem in his own blood the day before. Harrison wrote about his own depression and pain in those poems. I felt seen in those poems in a way I hadn’t felt seen for most of my life. All my poems began as letters to Harrison.
I finally started writing more explicitly than I ever had about the abuse I endured growing up. I felt that this medium was going to be the key to my freedom. But Senior year two things happened that shut that down again.
The first was in a conference with one of my creative nonfiction teachers. I had shared a an essay where I wrote about myself and my upbringing. It was a milestone moment for me. But in that conference, the well meaning teacher said, “yeah that happened, but you also had a maid.” That voice came back, your problems are not real.
I’m still not sure what the point of bringing that up was. At the time I thought that the teacher was trying to give me perspective, remember I was at a school where other people had it worse than I did and at least my family was financially well off. They had “real problems.” I started to retreat again.
The second thing was smaller, but because it happened shortly after the first, I think it hit harder than it should have. The boarding school had a tradition of publishing at least one piece from each senior. I submitted some of those prose poems I was so proud of. The response I got back was “these are too personal to publish.” That hurt deeply. Had they just said, “they aren’t very good” I would have shrugged and gotten over it, but being told they wouldn’t publish these poems because they were too personal felt like a different kind of judgment: my mostly white, American peers were chastising me for my attempted breach of familial piety.
I should say some time in all of that I had another intense flare of suicidal thoughts. I even had a last minute plan, but my roommate happened to come back to our dorm room in time before I could do anything. I should also say that part of the deterioration of my mental health came from experiencing racism and becoming a racialized person, something I did not experience before. On breaks, when I would return home to Kuwait, I would often try to express my frustration of being in “America” to my siblings but I didn’t have the language or knowledge to express it accurately.
So basically, after a brief moment in the sun, I was back where I started. I had no coping mechanisms save for my poems to Jim Harrison and Yesenin which I continued to write.
At this point, if you’re still reading, you might be thinking: why didn’t you go to therapy? There were a number of reasons for that. For one, in Kuwait I could only access therapy through a parent. That would mean telling my parents what was really going on and how they were really affecting me. Another thing, I knew kids who saw therapists in Kuwait, I also knew those therapists told the parents everything their kids said. Therapy in Kuwait was not an option for me.
My experience at my boarding high school cemented my mistrust of therapy and therapists. Remember that I went to an arts school with kids who had “real problems” and there were many stories of how terrible the counseling was at our school. I saw friends be retraumatized by those experiences, heard rumors of counselors disclosing sensitive information; remember that girl who attempted suicide because she “wanted attention” from an ex? She had been seeing counselors or a therapist through the school. I had no trust in that system.
That mistrust followed me into college. I saw a counselor on campus my sophomore year after I was assaulted on an Amtrak because I was a nervous wreck. I went in for one session and I thought I took what I needed from that one session and could move on. I just needed help with this assault thing, my other problems were not real.
So I went to college. So I met a boy. So I had a lot of secrets. So I finally decided to tell someone the truth. We had been dating for two going on three years then and after I had grudgingly admitted to myself that I was in fact in love and he was the one, I knew I could trust him. So I was going to try to ask for help, and this time I knew what I was going to ask for.
What I asked for was understanding, and that is what he gave me. He read the links I sent, he listened intently. I cried and spilled everything. And that was enough. Suicide happens when pain exceeds the resources for coping with that pain. I had a new coping resource, I had someone I could share with and feel safe.
That was in 2011, and is, unfortunately, not the end of the story.
I had another coping mechanism that wasn’t always healthy: distraction. I can’t feel sad if I’m working. So I went to work. I had a full course load and even overloaded credits some trimesters while either running or holding an executive position in at least three student organizations, while working part time, running an activist campaign to address issues of diversity and inclusivity on campus, eventually working on an undergraduate thesis for honors in which I basically wrote and edited a full length poetry manuscript, and even planned to start my low residency MFA program only two weeks after graduating from undergrad while also attending a month-long institute to get a certificate in publishing.
I was so busy I had to make a shared Google calendar just so my boyfriend would know when I was available because often I didn’t even have time to tell him what I was up to. Of course, just like my problems weren’t real, I wasn’t really busy in my mind either. But as long as I was thinking about something else, I wasn’t thinking about killing myself. Suicide happens when you run out of coping mechanisms, right?
That busy lifestyle came to an abrupt end about a year after graduating. I spent a year in DC as an unpaid intern and couldn’t find work. My OPT visa was running out. I was stressed and feeling trapped again. Without a job, I would be forced to move back to Kuwait, back to my father’s house. It felt like a death sentence. I shared a more relaxed version of these events with people I knew, but the only person who knew the truth was my boyfriend.
We left DC and moved in with his parents because neither of us could find work there. We hoped Portland would have more opportunities, and at least we wouldn’t have to pay rent. Aside from my graduate school work, my day to day became devastatingly empty. And still I couldn’t find work thanks in part to my visa status. The deadline for me to return to Kuwait was coming up fast.
My boyfriend and I had already talked about marriage before graduating, but I wanted to gain residency in the US through work, not marriage. Now time was running out, and it was either get married or go back to Kuwait. We got married.
I want to say that though in the context it sounds pretty awful, I was and am glad to be married to him. He is and will always be the love of my life. While the timing of our marriage came sooner than we would have liked, under less than ideal circumstances, we knew we were meant for each other. But for years I carried anxiety about our marriage, always wondering if the only reason it happened was because of my situation. After all, I believed myself to be a terrible person deep down, so why would anyone want to stay with me?
Anyone who has lived with their in-laws knows how hard it can be even if you have wonderful in-laws like I do. While I had visited my husbands parents and spent time with them for years before we were married, there was still so much we didn’t know about each other. Lacking the privacy I was used to having in my relationship made it feel harder to share. Not having a job left me home alone often with nothing to do but search for jobs, stack up rejections, and think about how terrible I am. I lost both of my coping resources quite suddenly.
My mental health deteriorated rapidly. I had thoughts of killing myself daily, and because of everyone else’s schedule I had ample opportunity to be home alone long enough to do something. Again what kept me alive was guilt and fear. The fear was the same. This time the guilt was different. I didn’t want my husband to be alone when he found me, and with his schedule he probably would have been. I didn’t want to cause him that kind of pain. So even when the thoughts rose to a fever pitch and I wanted so badly, so desperately to be gone, I stuck around. I had relied on another coping mechanism I had only used sporadically in my youth: I started hitting myself. Nothing to leave a mark of course so my husband and my in-laws wouldn’t know.
The second year we lived with my in-laws, we decided to go to Kuwait for six weeks. It was his first time there and I wanted to show him everything. Most of the trip was wonderful. We were in Kuwait for Hala Febriar, a month long celebration in Kuwait, and the weather was nice and cool. We spent time with both my parents, and my husband, who is a notoriously picky eater, fell in love with the food of all things.
While I wanted to show him everything… I didn’t really mean everything. But he saw first hand what it could be like in my home. He saw and felt the terror and the anxiety. He got to see the bodily fear my father could induce in his children. He got to witness the emotional manipulations of my mother. He got to see the deterioration of my relationship with my siblings as each of us grappled with the legacy of our upbringing and what it taught us to do to each other. It was mostly a good trip, but it was also an honest one.
When we came back there was more turmoil, but it is not mine to share. All of this happened, however, in the context of us planning a wedding. We had already been married, but most of my family could not attend the courthouse ceremony. Our wedding was to be that summer so my family could be there.
Planning a wedding can really test you and your relationship, especially when at least one person is near mental collapse. This is true for any wedding planning, but I had an added stressor: The wedding was the convergence of so many parts of my life I had kept separate. My family meeting Will’s for only the second time (the first was at our college graduation), my friends from different parts of my life meeting each other and meeting Will’s friends, all of these people in a room together with an open bar. It could be glorious or it could be a disaster. For much of the planning this hung over me ready to crush me at any moment.
There was a lot in the lead up to the wedding that hurt my relationships with family members. I’m only now beginning to look back on those wedding pictures without intense pain, that was 2015. There were many parts that were wonderful, but many that were terrible. It’s not a good sign when your photographer has to keep reminding you to smile on your wedding day.
For our marriage to survive, we needed to move. Desperately. The death knell of suicide rang loudly in my ears. I took to drinking more irresponsibly, getting high as often as I could, and basically tuning out of my life, thank you Netflix, thank you books (another coping mechanism from childhood: TV, Movies, and books to escape into). Can’t think of dying if you are barely living. Suicide happens when you cannot find ways to cope anymore, right?
I thought getting a job would fix things. If I could be busy again, I could feel better again.
I had one job the entire time I was in Portland those two years, and I was terrible at it. And I mean that objectively, that is not based on my low self-esteem. I lasted a month before calling it quits after crying in my car almost everyday. I never want to work retail again. I was able to quit my job with the excuse that I got my first paid writing gig. I was hired to write a textbook for high school students on the life and work of the poet Countée Cullen.
It was glorious. I had a month to research and write the book. I was busy again. I would wake up and get working, not even bothering to brush my teeth many days, and kept going till I collapsed for the night just to wake up and do it all over again the next day. But the deadline came up, I turned in the manuscript and was paid and my work-for-hire was over.
By this time, my green card from my marriage came in. I was free to pursue jobs that were previously closed to me because of my status. I applied to become a teacher through a certain teacher training program. I had been a teaching assistant in college and enjoyed it, and this organization had tried to recruit me when I was a senior at my undergraduate institution but when I told them about my visa status I was ineligible. Now I was eligible. I was accepted and then hired to teach in a rural town in Idaho. I felt hopeful; this was a real job, a career, something that would enable us to begin our adult lives. This would fix things.
I want to say that I loved my students. All of them. Even the ones I didn’t like. They were kids, and a product of their circumstances like myself. I don’t begrudge any of them for anything. They were kids and are not responsible for my experience there. They were kids. I was the adult in the room.
Three years in Idaho was hell. My mental health deteriorated to dangerous levels. I put everything of myself into the job: there was no such thing a work-life balance. I needed to be busy, and some toxic elements of the group I was a part of in addition to some toxic elements of the school district and town I worked in pushed me to work myself more than I ever had before. On many occasions I would be at school from 6am to midnight. I’d had the building alarms set on me countless times. Many teachers can probably think back to their first year of teaching and share their own stories of high expectations, high anxiety, limited resources, fighting the despair of watching a system chew kids up and spit them out without having any ability to do anything meaningful about it, and no work-life balance. Experienced teachers always tell the new ones that the first year is hell. That is an understatement.
By the end of my second year I was at my wits end. My marriage felt like it was hanging by a thread, my sanity was barely there. I had what I later learned were panic attacks weekly, mostly Sunday nights before the work week began again, sometimes in the morning as I was going to work. Once it was so bad I went to the emergency room because I was afraid I was having a heart attack. On the drive I constantly debated driving myself into a ditch as fast as I could; people died on that road often enough, it wouldn’t have been unusual. I knew deeply that if I stayed there I would die, literally. The summer before my third year teaching in Idaho, my husband had started seeing a therapist. He said it was helping him. I decided to seek therapy too. I was out of other options. I needed a new coping resource.
I was skeptical but desperate at first. It took me a few sessions to fully trust my therapist. I told her I was there mainly for issues with work. I did give her a dispassionate run-through of my background but told her I’m not there for any of that stuff because “I’ve gotten over it.” Thinking about that meeting now, I have to laugh.
If you’re in the Nampa/Caldwell area and are in need of a therapist: look up Mary Law. I cannot recommend her enough. We worked on gaining more coping mechanisms, focusing mostly on my work situation because I was still convinced I didn’t need help with all of the other stuff. I got positive reviews from my principals, some students shared the impact my class had on them, I kept in touch with many after they were no longer my students; but even with all that, I felt I was terrible at my job and didn’t do enough. Therapy helped me realize that while I wasn’t perfect, I was good at my job and I did care for my kids. I learned how to stave off a panic attack with tapping, I had a trusted person who could help me process what I experienced day to day at work.
With her help I gained back some of my sense of self. I sent in my letter of resignation to my principal and made an exit plan to leave Idaho for good. At the time I told my employer I was leaving to be closer to family in Portland, which was partly true. There was no way I was going to be honest about my reasons. I needed people to write me recommendation letters…
It was with Mary that I began to realize that I really wasn’t over the things that happened to me. Reading this, you may think that was obvious, but remember that aside from wanting to die or blowing up once in a while, I felt like I had put those things behind me, at least over the decade that I lived in the US away from my family. There were things I had all but forgotten that were coming back. For instance, I remembered that I used to get these irrational fears as a kid, as young as four, that I would fall into the sky, I remember one night in particular where I was crying and pulling at the grass to keep from falling. I was so scared, I clung to my sister tightly and buried my face in the dirt. I didn’t understand what was happening to me at the time, now I can recognize and name a panic attack. What I thought was something wholly new to me was actually a very old part of myself.
I learned things in therapy that I was excited to share with others, particularly my siblings who all had scars from our childhood. It felt like my life was on the mend: I was on the verge of improving my relationship with my husband and my siblings, and I was figuring out my escape plan from Idaho.
One of the biggest difficulties in teaching was that I saw a lot of kids who reminded me of myself and that was triggering. By the end of my first semester of that academic year, it was clear to Mary and I that I needed some deeper processing. A friend had mentioned she was doing a type of therapy called EMDR. I knew that my husband’s therapist had recommended it to him as well. I asked Mary about it and she said that she was going to recommend that for me.
I went from avoiding therapy to having two therapists at once (thank you mostly-crappy school district health insurance). I continued my work with Mary and then started EMDR with Jason Johnson. Again, if you’re in the Treasure Valley area, I can’t recommend them enough.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. How Jason described it was like this: imagine your brain as a sink. Everything that happens to you is something that is going down the drain of that sink and being processed by the part of your brain called the hippocampus. Sometimes, the events are so traumatic, they block the drain and can’t be processed. EMDR is the process of unclogging that drain, helping you to process those traumatic memories in healthy ways.
The process sounds simple: you sit in a room and hold two buzzers, one in each hand, the buzzers go off one at a time: left, right, left, right, left, right. This mimics REM sleep, when your eyes move back and forth. You focus on a target memory and a target negative belief and then simply observe the memory and belief and what happens. Like I said, it sounds simple enough: it can be brutal.
I was skeptical; I appreciate that Jason was very no-nonsense so it helped me feel a little more comfortable with this mumbo jumbo. (I believe in a lot of mumbo jumbo quite sincerely but have been socialized to be disdainful of it.) I thought we’d start with something that upset me but wasn’t too deep.
My target memory was an event in high school at that boarding school; it was a student reading after my work was rejected by the student run magazine for the millionth time. I dealt with literary rejection pretty well, so I thought the memory of feeling sad at that reading, which for some reason stuck with me more than the countless other times that happened, would be a safe place to start.
Memory is a long chain. Pull one end, and other follows. I imagined the room of the reading, there was a big ostrich statue, glass doors, and a fireplace behind the readers. I was at the back of the room, standing and listening, feeling sad and for some reason nauseous. I remembered it clearly as the buzzers buzzed back and forth in my hands.
Then the background behind the readers turned green.
I worked with Jason for a few months. We talked about cycles of abuse, about how memory works, about things that were triggering me and the negative beliefs they were based on. But I only saw him for 6 or so sessions before the end of the year came and I was going to leave Idaho for once and for all. I would be returning to Portland, and I had already secured a job. I wanted to continue therapy when I got there, specifically EMDR. I do want to acknowledge that EMDR doesn’t work for everyone. While I wanted to continue it, Will decided it was not for him.
There are a lot of people who claim to be licensed in EMDR therapy, who are not. To get a legitimate EMDR practitioner in my area, Jason said to use the site emdria.org. They are the licensing authority and have a database of all of the therapists with that specialty.
I told myself that once I got my health insurance situated, I would find an EMDR therapist in Portland. I did attempt, in the fall of 2019 to find a therapist. When I went to see my new doctor for a health check up, I asked her how I could get a therapist, I told her what I was specifically looking for. She told me that my health insurance needed to grant me an out-of-house referral for EMDR since they didn’t have anyone to her knowledge who practiced it.
She gave me the call in information to begin the process. I went through a pretty emotionally tough screening interview over the phone and was then given a referral number that I would then have to share with the therapist I found.
The first EMDR therapist I found never got back to me. The second was not able to take new patients. Life got busy, I dropped the ball. I thought this was ok because most of my immediate issues were from my past work environment and that was gone now. I felt like I was on track and a little delay wouldn’t hurt; while my marriage still felt shaky, it was on the mend, and not only was I teaching, but I was also hired to write another book, this time a Choose Your Own Adventure. I convinced myself that I would be ok for a while without a therapist. And I was.
Then a couple of things happened all at once. Things with my family started to get harder again in a way I couldn’t handle like I used to; after a trying time in New York that February, I had a series of bad news and bad triggers from February into April, into May, and into the summer.
I won’t go into details, but it was hell. After what seemed like major steps forward, I felt pushed back to square one. I started secretly hitting myself again. The stressors in our home were causing fights between my husband and I to the point I was afraid we would get divorced, my relationships with my siblings fell apart. I constantly imagined jumping off my balcony, but I knew it wasn’t high enough to kill me; that knowledge and my fear of heights saved me.
On August 17th, 2020 I started thinking of taking my life more seriously than I had in a long time. That week I was close twice to doing it, but Will was home and would have been able to stop me. I needed a better plan. I was tired of living out of fear and guilt, it wasn’t enough anymore. Suicide happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain. My last fail-safes, what had kept me alive through most of my childhood, couldn’t cut it anymore.
On August 25th, 2020, I felt at peace. I woke up that morning alone in bed because Will had to go into work early and would be gone until well into the night for an extra long shift. I made the bed, brushed my teeth, washed my face, and felt happy. I mean it. I felt genuinely happy to know that I was going to die that day. That was going to be my last day on earth and I could not wait.
I opened the door to my home office, a haven I created for myself in the hopes of a new life and the place I wanted to die in, but there was Will. My heart sank. He was home. He said he was worried about me and decided to call in sick for the day and called a crisis hotline that morning for help that morning.
That man knows me too well.
I managed to convince him to leave the house. We had a few errands that needed to get done and yes I manipulated him into leaving me alone for what should have been a few hours.
This was still in the era of the pandemic. I knew that since Will would no longer have the alibi of work, he’d be pretty much the only suspect for my death in an investigation. I didn’t want Will to deal with my death and being suspected of murder in the middle of his grieving. So I wrote a suicide note and dated it. I turned on my laptop and started recording on my webcam and narrated my preparations, reiterating multiple times that I was home alone. I am nothing if not prepared.
And then I did it. And then I didn’t die.
The sense of calm and happiness I had that morning left me. I was shaking, tears and snot running down my face. I grabbed my phone and texted Will to come home.
As soon as he was home, I cried and apologized. But then I was already distancing myself from what happened, already making a joke out of it.
Why couldn’t I take it seriously?
That question stuck in my brain. I knew deep down that I should have been dead, that this was the closest attempt I’d every had, that I was just lucky: but I still couldn’t take myself and my problems seriously!
I had been thinking about my coping skills for years, but I realized that I needed to do more. I needed to really commit to figuring out what was happening with me and not shy away from it. I was terrified of what I would find if I dug deep enough but I knew I needed to do it.
I called my health insurance for a referral to a therapist again, went through the grueling interview again, and using the site Jason gave me, found another EMDR therapist, and this time I was going to dive deep.
My first session with my current therapist was on September 1st, only a week after my attempt. I felt anxious the whole time, but I pushed myself to be honest with her and tell her about my attempt, though I did downplay it slightly (and consequently felt walls coming up, I almost didn’t return to my therapist because of that). I am only not naming her out of paranoia that people might contact her about me.
I made other changes too. I cut off relationships with people who I loved dearly but could no longer be around. I threw myself into my writing, which I had neglected for years outside of the works-for-hire I had. I started painting again and reading again. I decided to be honest with my in-laws about what was going on with me and my past. I threw myself into everything I loved and surrounded myself with it.
It wasn’t easy. Some days I would be so down that nothing gave me joy. I thought about dying over and over again. Things would flare up and send me spiraling.
The EMDR work was particularly grueling, and I was lucky enough to have scheduled my sessions on a day where I had no other responsibilities.
Remember that target memory I mentioned earlier? The student reading, where I was feeling sad and nauseous and then the background inexplicably turned green? That memory was a huge block for me. Jason and I, in our limited time together, never cracked it. Over time with my current therapist, we got into it.
Let me tell you why the background turned green in my mind.
Memory is a long chain. Pull on one end and the other follows. I didn’t realized it the first time, but the background didn’t just turn any green in my mind. It turned the particular shade of green of the living room of an apartment I lived in as a child. And the view of the reading, became the view from my seat at the dining table in the alcove behind that living room. Then I recognized that particular feeling of nausea at the reading. It was the same nausea I had for years when we had to sit as a family for lunch after school every day and on weekends. I won’t go into detail, but there was a particular torture for me at that table that I’d almost forgotten. Something at that reading triggered that old feeling, which is why it stuck out above any other instance of literary rejection in my life. Memory is a very long chain.
A lot of the work of therapy is what you do outside of sessions. It wasn’t a burdensome amount, but it was work that I needed to commit to if I really wanted to make changes for myself. My current therapist gave me some books to read, Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, and Mindsight by Daniel J. Siegel. Along with EMDR, we talked about how to manage emotions, how to keep perspective, how to do real self-care not the commercialized pretense of it.
One of the most important things we do in addition to the EMDR work is called IFS therapy.
IFS stands for Internal Family Systems. The basic premise of IFS is that we cannot be understood in isolation, our experiences–especially with family–must be taken into account. Additionally, we have different sub-personalities called “parts” and by being open to our different parts, we can start to heal past wounds and replace unhealthy learned coping mechanisms with better, healthier ones. We do this in tandem with EMDR or sometimes on its own.
The way my therapist described it to me is that my highest self and all my parts are on a bus together. All of the different parts of myself developed to help me survive as a child, they were each serving a purpose at the time. However, a lot of those parts are stuck, and when they are triggered, they sometimes try to drive the bus. The goal is to thank each part for doing what they needed to to keep me alive, and then try to update them on my life so that they didn’t feel the need to have those old jobs anymore and my highest self, my centered self, can continue to drive the bus.
So let’s go back to that memory of the reading and how it turned green and how it reminded me of a particular type of nausea stemming from a recurring childhood torture. The nausea was one of my “parts.” As a child, I would get so stressed that something terrible would happen that I would throw up. I never meant to throw up on purpose, it just happened. The response to that from the adults in my life were not kind, to say the least. So, years later when I no longer spontaneously threw up from stress, this reading triggered that part. IFS work means asking that part what she thinks she is accomplishing by making me feel nauseous and possibly throwing up–she is doing this to protect me, what is she trying to protect me from?
Once I figured that out (it’s too personal to share even in this long, long piece), I updated that part. That meant thanking her for doing her job, offering her (and therefore myself) the comfort I didn’t receive as a child, telling or showing her how my life has changed from what she experienced and reacted to, and then asking her what job she’d rather have instead since her original job is no longer needed. In this case, she just wanted to be a kid, she just wanted to rest. So now she does; and if that particular feeling of nausea comes back, I know how to handle it. I gained a new coping resource that is healthier and allows me to help myself on the days between therapy sessions.
After working with with my therapist for a few months, in January of 2021 we talked about my care plan. Part of that involved a diagnosis for my issues. I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). She gave me another book to work with: The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook by Glenn R. Schiraldi.
We talked about medication and I decided to try it. I was prescribed Fluoxetine (the generic name for Prozac) by my healthcare provider in conjunction with regular check in calls with a nurse. After about three months of trying different doses (and going through some nasty but ultimately temporary gastrointestinal side effects), we found the dose that was right for me. I have a developing crisis plan with my husband. After another few months of working with my therapist, she gave me another couple of books to work with, Self-Therapy by Jay Early and the accompanying workbook. I also try to journal regularly, engage with my spiritual practices more, and use IFS techniques to help me process when issues arise.
I am in the process of learning more and more coping resources all the time. I am building myself an arsenal of resources so that the next time I feel like I’m slipping, I know that I’ll be able to handle it.
I can’t help but look back and wish that I had seen that Metanoia website earlier in my life, that I had access to counselors or therapists that I could trust, that I lived in a world where medication wasn’t stigmatized, that I understood the myths I had about suicide were just that: myths. I wonder if I would be further along in my journey if I started sooner.
And this is why, on the anniversary of my attempt, I decided to share my story and these resources. I hope, if you are having these feelings, that you seek the help you need unashamedly.
You are not selfish. You are not faking it. Your problems and pain are real no matter what you or others might compare it to. The journey is hard, things won’t magically “get better,” but with the right help they will. I want you to live too.
I still think of killing myself some days. I still deal with the residual effects of my childhood and the many things in my adulthood that have added to that pain. Some days I feel great, some days I feel only slightly better than my darkest day. Since my attempt last year I’ve had other personal things crush me, but I can and do rely on the new skills I’ve attained. I want you to have the skills you need too.
And if you are someone reading this who doesn’t have these feelings, I hope maybe this will make you think of the myths you may believe in about people who commit or attempt suicide. I hope you think about how you might talk to someone about it. Remember, you may not know the circumstances of the person who is listening to you speak.
My love to anyone and everyone who is suffering or knows someone who is suffering.
Boundaries: I’m leaving the comments open on this post because I am not an expert on this subject by any means, so if I need correcting on anything or if people have more resources to add, please do so. We need to demystify suicide.
Also, please don’t ask about the attempt, I’m not going to share specifics with people online (for fear of giving people who need help a suicide plan).
Mood: Nervous, but better, but posting this might not be great for my mental health if I get too anxious, might delete later…
Currently listening to: “KMS” by Sub Urban (TW: Suicide)